Week 1: Learning to Choose
Much of our stress is exacerbated by our resistance to unpleasant experience, and what we resist tends to persist. So we are caught in a trap: the more we resist the more it persists! Mindfulness allows us to accept experience rather than reacting to it, which - paradoxically - allows us to let go of it. This lightens our load considerably, allowing us to get on with our life quite happily, even though it’s not completely sorted. (And will it ever be?)
When we’re stressed we naturally try to do something about it, and this usually entails thinking - problem-solving. The trouble with this strategy is that it doesn’t work very well! In fact it’s more often than not counterproductive. Thinking about our stress keeps us stressed! An important aspect of mindfulness practice is to pay more attention to our senses - body sensations, sounds, sights, tastes - which brings us back to our actual experience in the moment. This greatly reduces stress.
Thoughts are one of the main causes of stress, trapping us in a loop in which we try to solve our problems, while the very act of trying to solve the problem keeps us tied to the problem. But what to do? We can’t just stop thinking! One of the skills you’ll learn is to notice thoughts as they arise in your mind and let them go. This is a liberating insight for people who attend the course.
Life, as you know, isn’t easy. Financial worries, issues around the way we earn our living and with work colleagues, difficulties in our relationships with family and friends - who doesn’t have them? Mindfulness doesn’t make everything nice and smooth and easy. Rather, it enables us to develop skills and inner resources to cope better - in fact to flourish - in the midst of the sometimes difficult and messy aspects of life. Learning how to be with unpleasant, difficult experiences without allowing them to ‘press our buttons’ is a key skill that you’ll learn.
Not that life is unremittingly difficult either! There’s pleasure, enjoyment, beauty and love out there too. When we experience some difficulty in life we have a tendency to focus on it, often to the exclusion of all else, and especially the good things that are happening. In this week, we encourage you to widen your gaze a little and notice the small pleasures of life, which often go unremarked - the sun coming from behind a cloud and warming your face, a compliment from a friend, a job well done. We’re not trying to ‘think positive’, just trying to level the playing field. By noticing the good things and letting them affect us we’re working against the brain's inbuilt ’negativity bias’.
In a way the word mindfulness gives a wrong impression. People often associate the mind with the head, with the brain, with cool, analytical thought. Mindfulness certainly isn’t that. It’s simply awareness, and not a cool and detached awareness either - it’s warm, gentle, and kind. We emphasise this all the way through the course but in this week we bring it right into centre stage and introduce a kindness meditation.
When we’re having a hard time it’s easy to become preoccupied with our suffering, and this can become a trap. In the last part of the course we take the kindness meditation further, bringing others to mind and cultivating a warm, gentle, kindly awareness towards them too. This can be difficult, especially if some of them are the causes of your current stress. However, research has shown that developing a more kindly attitude towards others has a very beneficial effect on the state of our mind and body, including the reduction of stress.
On the final week of the course we review everything we’ve learned and practiced, and we look to the future. The course only works to the extent that we practice. Now that we’ve come to the end of the course, how will you continue to practice and continue to benefit from it? We discuss ways of keeping inspired and reviving our inspiration when it flags. And we encourage you to look after yourself in the future. This isn’t ‘selfish’, it’s sensible. After all, if you’re going to be any help to others, you have to be in pretty good shape yourself!